"I came out to my extended family in India, which is over 200 people, and it went astonishingly well. I’m the only one in my entire family who isn’t straight."
Poonam Bhargava, 41, works in healthcare management. She is Indian-American, bisexual, and vegan. She lives in Ohio with her wife, Mrinalini, and their dog and cat. Photos courtesy of Poonam.
AT WHAT AGE WERE YOU AWARE OF YOUR SEXUALITY and GENDER IDENTITY?
I was brought up in India, so I didn’t really know I was bisexual until I came to the U.S. as an adult. Ironically, nobody talks about sexuality in India—you know, the land of Kama Sutra. Growing up, I had crushes on boys and girls but it was very confusing for me because I didn’t have the resources to know that there was an alternative lifestyle I could choose. I didn’t know those terms or have that vocabulary.
I was in a girl’s school for many years where I had relationships with girls, but these relationships were kind of behind the curtains, behind the walls. We never talked about a future, we just lived in the present. We didn’t really know what the future would hold. There was a lot of heartbreak because every woman was supposed to enter into an arranged marriage.
I got in an arranged marriage and came to the U.S. with my husband. Within three months, I left him (for various reasons). Then I dated men for a little while, and basically, I started thinking about alternative lifestyles and got information on it. I went into therapy to talk about it, and that’s when I became more comfortable, but it happened gradually. I just knew that I cannot feel for men the same way I feel for women. To make a long story short, it was around 28 when I started dating a woman here in the U.S. and that’s when I realized that, yes, I identify as a bisexual. It was a long journey, and I wish I would have realized a few things sooner, but that’s how it is.
DID YOU HAVE ANY SUPPORT FROM FRIENDS, RELATIVES, OR MENTORS? WERE ANY OF THEM ALSO LGBTQ?
I told my mom first. She’d seen me go through the arranged marriage and she was feeling guilty because she emotionally blackmailed me into it. I also educated her on it a little bit. I didn’t straightaway tell her that I was gay and just expect her to deal with it. Instead, I watched a few Bollywood films with her that had a gay theme, and she was like, "Oh, is that even a possibility?" And I was like, "Yeah, two men can be in love and they can be possessive about each other."
When I told her that I was bi, she already had some education and she was supportive. She was loving, at least. And she had a lot of questions. I think she kind of blamed herself that if she hadn’t gotten me married to this psycho guy, then maybe I would not be gay and I would meet a good guy. So, she had some questions and guilt, but at this point she is very supportive of me and my wife.
I came out to my brother a few years after my mom. He seemed to be very loving and understanding and said, "I’m glad that you told me. Now I’ll know how you expect me to treat Mrinalini because that’s how I would expect for you to treat my wife." It was very mature the way he responded. He told his wife and for awhile they were very friendly with us. They would visit us and we would visit them. But when we told them that we were getting married, they did a 180 degree turn. My sister in-law was like, "I’m not going to support this. It goes against the laws of nature." So, that went south pretty fast. I didn’t see them and didn’t get to see my nephew for about three years.
Eventually, my brother connected with me and now they have told their son and their in-laws, so there’s been some evolution there, which I’m happy about. I think my sister in-law still uncomfortable with it, but she wants to have a relationship with us, so it works. It works as long as she’s not rude and disrespectful. I didn’t know how to draw boundaries in relationships before, but in the last three years I’ve learned to communicate my boundaries, like, "I’ll accept these things, but these are the things I’ll never accept and you can never do to me."
Then I came out to my extended family in India, which is over 200 people, and it went astonishingly well. I’m the only one in my entire family who isn’t straight. I knew that a few of my cousins really supported me, so even if there were haters they couldn't really do much about it. They’ve got to shut up. It went pretty well and made a difference for me.
We haven’t been to India since I came out but we had our wedding anniversary in July, and people wished us happy anniversary. And that’s a big deal. I’m sure a few people were like, "What’s the world coming to?" and feeling uncomfortable, but what I’ve learned in the last two years of struggling with this is that if I don’t come out, if I keep hiding, first of all I’m not being true to myself so I can’t be happy anyway. And if I don't come out, I’m missing out on the people who would meaningfully support me. Sure, there are 200 relatives, but even if ten people love me and support me, I’m losing out on those people by not being open. And I care about those ten people, I don’t care about the rest. That’s my philosophy these days.
Do you face social stigma for being bisexual on top of being divorced?
Yes, I have struggled personally. I don’t know about others, but I have struggled with this thought that people are going to judge me harshly, more harshly, because I left my husband. They’ll judge me and think, "Oh, it was her fault because she was gay. She shouldn’t have ever married him. She spoiled his life." But that’s really not true. I didn't leave him because I was gay. It wasn't for another woman.
It was an arranged marriage and I didn’t know that guy. I mean, I’d known him for twenty days before we got married! And he was a psycho and got obsessed with me and wouldn’t leave alone ever. He got jealous of everyone I talked to. So, even if I was straight, I wouldn't be with him. But I have agonized over it in my mind, and I judge myself harshly even if no one else does. I still do sometimes, but I’m working through it.
DID YOU FIND REPRESENTATION FOR YOUR IDENTITY?
Yes, I went to a few South Asian LGBTQ support groups for counseling. Through these groups, I got information on how to get a divorce. I was new to this country and I didn’t know what I had gotten myself into and how to get a divorce, so it was important for me to understand what my rights were and where to go. It was there that I got a lawyer and a counselor and a few friends. So, that was very helpful.
"I don’t hang out in Indian circles because they’re conservative. I hang out with gay and vegan friends, but then there’s this cultural difference that makes me feel like I don’t get what I need. So, I feel isolation because of these intersecting identities. There are parts of me that connect with them, but it’s not the whole me.
HAVE YOU BEEN ABLE TO BE OPEN ABOUT YOUR SEXUALITY and GENDER IDENTITY AT HOME, SCHOOL, AND IN THE WORKPLACE?
I wasn’t out much in Bloomington, Indiana where I lived from 2007 to 2012. I had moved to Indiana with my ex and found out about Indiana University's business school and wanted to go back to school. But I wasn’t out initially.
After I came out to my mom, I wanted to bring my whole personality with me to work and not hide that part of me anymore. I didn't think my manager was homophobic but after coming out her behavior changed. She used to say, “It’s so gay” as a negative thing, but after I worked there maybe a year, I came out to her and said, "That phrase is offensive to me." She asked me, "Why did you not come out earlier?" and I said that it was because I heard her say that phrase and I wasn’t sure what her stance was. She apologized, but after I had told her, she started saying that phrase again in almost every meeting. I was thinking, "What’s going on?"
HAVE YOU EXPERIENCED DISCRIMINATION BECAUSE OF YOUR SEXUALITY and GENDER IDENTITY?
Before I came out, my manager treated me like a superstar and would rave about me and give me responsibilities, but after I came out, she took away responsibilities. It became really weird. I actually resigned because of her, because she made it so uncomfortable and created an unsafe environment for me to work in. I don’t know if she had internalized homophobia because when I came out to her, she said, "Well, technically I would classify myself as bisexual" because she had hooked up with a friend in high school. So, that didn’t go well for me.
do you know of other women who were in arranged marriages that came out as LGBTQ like you and Mrinalini did?
I say that we’re a rare species. I haven’t met anyone like us. The Indian women I know of were born and raised in the U.S. I met 2 in Chicago that had come with their partners and then came out.
Do you notice your different identities overlapping in the way people perceive you?
I think they do overlap. What I have experienced is more that I feel isolated sometimes. I have American gay friends, but they’re very different culturally. I think that the way we form friendships is different than the way we form friendships in India. I don’t feel that kind of a connection with my American friends in Columbus. Not for all, but most. I did have a few very close connections in Indiana.
The problem is that I don’t hang out in Indian circles because they’re conservative. I hang out with gay and vegan friends, but then there’s this cultural difference that makes me feel like I don’t get what I need. So, I feel isolation because of these intersecting identities. There are parts of me that connect with them, but it’s not the whole me. For example, in India, the friends I have were very informal whereas here you have to plan everything. Like, you schedule a potluck 3 weeks from now. In India, we would just call anytime or talk with them about what’s going on. We used to just show up and knock on the door. It was very spontaneous.
When you're sick, in India, people come and visit you or call you or bring you food. But here, you’re all alone. At least that’s been my experience. I think Colombus, especially, I’m not really new here anymore, but somehow I haven’t formed those close bonds. I’m not seeing physical connection and emotional connection. Even on birthdays, it’s very formal. People don’t call, they just wish you on Facebook. I miss that warmth. Emotional intimacy, that’s what I miss.
I don’t want to generalize, but most people have this wall around them. They might choose to open with other Americans, but not others. Even at the workplace, people just assume that I’ll be celebrating Christmas and have a Christmas tree. Like, I’ve never celebrated Christmas and I don’t have any emotional value attached to it, but they won’t wish me on Diwali because they don’t even know about it. Things like that. I would like for them to be curious about my culture and ask me what I think as someone from India. I think it's moreso with people who have not travelled enough and who have not been around diversity. For me, it’s important that people ask questions.